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Proper 14 / Ordinary Time 19 / Pentecost 9

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VII, Cycle C
Theme For The Day
In God's eyes, we are worth more than we could ever know.

Old Testament Lesson
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Though Your Sins Are Like Scarlet, They Shall Be Like Snow
The lectionary borrows verse 1 and attaches it to verses 10-20, to provide context. These are classic words of confrontation and judgment, in the best prophetic tradition. Addressing Israel as "Sodom" and "Gomorrah," the prophet addresses words of judgment to an unfaithful Israel (v. 10). God despises the worship and sacrifices of this ungrateful people (vv. 11-14), because blood is on their hands (v. 15). It is not enough to worship God with words, when deeds are evil. But there is a way back: "... cease to do evil," says the Lord. "Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (vv. 16-17). Adopting a courtroom setting in verse 18, the Lord says, "Come now, let us argue it out ... though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool." The prophetic ethic is an ethic of consequences: if the people are faithful, they "shall eat the good of the land"; if they continue to rebel, they "shall be devoured by the sword" (vv. 19-20).

New Testament Lesson
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Abraham's Faith
This week begins a four-week series of selections from the letter to the Hebrews. Addressing a church that needs to learn how to endure through suffering, the author begins a lengthy discourse on the nature of faith, appealing to the example of characters from the Bible. "Faith," he says, "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (v. 1). By faith we come to understand how "the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible" (v. 3). Jumping over the examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah, the lectionary zeroes in this week on the story of Abraham, who, at the Lord's command, "set out, not knowing where he was going" (v. 8). By faith, Abraham believed God's promise of descendants, and eventually received an heir in his son, Isaac. The nature of faith is such that not all promises are fulfilled in this life. We "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (v. 16).

The Gospel
Luke 12:32-40
Teachings Of Generosity And Vigilance
Using the lilies of the field as an example, Jesus has just encouraged his listeners not to worry, but to trust in the Lord to provide. Strive for God's kingdom, he says, and all the lesser things will be yours as well. In this week's selection, he continues this reasoning, telling them not to fear, "for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom" (v. 32). He advises them to sell their possessions and give alms, to make for themselves "purses ... that do not wear out," to store up "treasures in heaven" (v. 33). Through two mini-parables, Jesus encourages his disciples to remain watchful and awake. They are to be like the slaves of a master who has gone off to a wedding banquet: happy are the slaves who are ready immediately, even in the middle of the night, to open the door when the master returns (vv. 35-38)! They are to be like a homeowner who must remain vigilant against thieves because had he known what hour the thief was coming, his house would not have been burglarized (vv. 39-40).

Preaching Possibilities
"What are you worth?" When most people ask that question, they typically mean, "How much money do you have? What are your net assets?"

Each year, one of the leading financial magazines publishes a list of the richest people in America. The "worth" of each of the people who top the list runs into the billions of dollars. Yet is this really an accounting of what they are worth -- or merely of what they own?

We get our priorities so mixed up sometimes! Anyone who doubts that this is true need only look at some of the language we use. We sometimes say, for example, that people who have declared bankruptcy are "ruined" -- as though a shortage of money could ruin a part of God's good creation! What do the gamblers in the casinos say when they still have some money left? They say they're "still alive!"

The tragedy is that some people actually believe this twisted way of thinking. Remember what a few Wall Street financiers did on the day the stock market crashed in 1929? They leapt from the windows of their Manhattan skyscrapers. Was their joy in family and friends truly diminished by their financial problems? Did food suddenly taste less good, flowers smell less sweet? Was life really less worth living, because their carefully constructed financial castles had been demolished? Those tycoons of 1929 lost their perspective. They really believed the lie that they were worth what they owned.

Few people in contemporary society have learned from their example. How many today struggle not only under financial burdens -- burdens of unpaid bills and heavy debts, but also burdens of low self-esteem? Not only do they struggle to make ends meet, they also labor to convince themselves they are "worth" more than their checkbook balance indicates.

One of the powerful myths on which our society is based is that "we are what we own." It is a cruel and oppressive myth, to be sure. Deep down, you and I know it is a lie. Yet what a powerful influence it exerts all the same!

Jesus has a word that counters this powerful myth. It is, "Fear not."

"Fear not, little flock," Jesus says, "for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." He goes on, advising the disciples, "Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourself that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

These are words of comfort, spoken to disciples who are anxious about food and clothing. Yet rarely do we hear them as words of comfort. We change them from good news into bad news. In the dark recesses of our minds we cultivate feelings of guilt: guilt that maybe we haven't given enough, maybe we haven't been radical enough in our discipleship, and given it all away.

The end result is not all that different from the Wall Street tycoon jumping off the window-ledge. Even if we're concerned with giving rather than getting, money is still a source of anxiety for us. And Christian stewardship, that subject that ought to be joyfully liberating, becomes the subject no one in the church wants to talk about. "We are what we own" is a potent -- and debilitating -- myth indeed!

As with many things, Jesus has a way of turning society's myths completely around. To the myth, "we are what we own," Jesus says, in effect, "we own what we are." That's a very loose paraphrase of what Jesus is saying when he speaks of "treasures in heaven." It's a truism that, at death, "you can't take it with you" -- or, as the old Spanish proverb says, "a shroud has no pockets." Our financial worth will not go with us to the throne of God, but our character certainly will. When all is said and done, all that we really own are the virtues that make us the people we are.

Remember the famous scene in Dickens' novel, A Christmas Carol, when the ghost of Jacob Marley appears to Ebenezer Scrooge? Marley's ghost is weighed down with heavy chains and padlocks. "These are the chains I forged in life," the ghost moans. Jacob Marley discovered too late that in death, all he truly owned was what he was: a selfish miser who cared more about account balances than the people they represented.

What Jesus is saying in this passage is that our character, what we make of ourselves as people, is far more important to God than the world's measure of human worth. In the greater scheme of things, our statement of net financial worth is a matter of indifference. So unimportant are financial matters that Jesus advises the disciples to give their worldly goods away, so they will not be troubled by their crippling weight; so they will not become like Marley with his chains.

Yet how many of us even come close to this kind of virtue, selling our possessions and giving to the poor? "We own what we are" is a beautiful dream, but unattainable. So what, truly, are we worth, in the eyes of God? Are we mere acquisitive animals, crawling through a lifestyle of greed? Or are we a heavenly experiment that blew up in the laboratory, some kind of mutation of the virtuous people God created us to be?

The answer Jesus gives is in the form of a parable. He tells of a gang of servants waiting around for their master to return from a wedding. It's late at night. The servants are having a hard time keeping their eyes open. They don't want the boss to arrive to find them sleeping.

The master does come home, and for the faithful servants who've stayed awake he does an amazing thing. The master rolls up his sleeves, puts on an apron, and starts waiting on them. The master's actions truly speak louder than words. In a moment of blinding insight the servants discover they are not lowly domestics, living in fear of retribution, but valued friends, appreciated for their faithfulness. This is the same good news that can flash on like a light bulb for us when we take the time to observe the cross -- to truly observe it. We can glory in the fact that, on the cross, the decisive action of calculating our worth has already been accomplished. In the eyes of God, we are worth more than we can ever know.

So what are we worth? Not what we own or what we are, surely, but what Christ has done for us. We are worth no less than Jesus' own blood, the blood he shed so we might have life.

Prayer For The Day
God of love,
there is a place, deep inside,
where even the strongest of us feel
weak, poor, inadequate.
Those of us who are strongest
perhaps only appear strong
because we are able to guard that place most aggressively.
Around that place of vulnerability
we pile up our possessions like bulwarks.
Breach our battlements, Lord.
Break them down.
Scatter our proud assortment of glittering treasures.
For they are not real.
All that is real is you, and your love.
Help us to know that your love comes to us
unbidden, undeserved,
without money and without price. Amen.

To Illustrate
Victor Hugo's classic novel, Les Miserables, contains one of the most famous scenes in world literature, one that has continued to amaze readers -- and theater and film audiences as well -- even in this cynical age.

Jean Valjean, the hero of the story, is an escaped convict wandering the streets of Paris. He finds food and shelter one night in the house of a bishop, where he has gone to beg some table scraps. Valjean abuses the bishop's hospitality -- for, as he lays in the soft, clean bed in the guest room, he can't stop thinking about the silver candlesticks he's seen in the dining room. Valjean slips downstairs in the middle of the night, steals the candlesticks, and vanishes into the dark streets.

The night watch catches up with him. The police know these fine silver candlesticks could not belong to such a man. They take him door-to-door, hoping to find the rightful owner.

Ultimately, they come to the bishop's house. The housekeeper is about to finger him as the thief when the kindly voice of the bishop intervenes. "This man is my friend, and a guest in my house," he tells the police. "These candlesticks are his, for I have given them to him."

The police depart, shaking their heads in disbelief, and Valjean finds himself alone with the bishop. "Why did you do that?" he asks. "Didn't you know I stole your candlesticks?"

"Yes, I know," the bishop replies, "but it doesn't matter. For today, Jean Valjean, I have purchased your soul, for the price of a pair of candlesticks. Go now, and live a virtuous life."

***

The book of 1 Peter contains these words: "You know that you were ransomed ... not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ ..." (1:18-19a).

"Perishable things like silver or gold" -- what a strange thing to say! These metals are in fact among the most imperishable of the elements. Archaeologists have unearthed gold and silver artifacts that still gleam like new, twenty centuries later. Yet blood -- that common organic substance that flows through all our veins -- is among the most perishable things in creation.

In 1 Peter, we read that the blood of a man who died 2,000 years ago is the only element that is truly imperishable. It is not our riches, and not our efforts at doing good works, that matter, ultimately. It is neither what we own nor what we are, but what Christ has done that is truly decisive.

***

Today [people] are consumed by desires to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, to impress people they don't like.
-- Patrick Morley, The Man in the Mirror (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), p. 9

***

Desert mirages appear to be water, which is desperately needed. But they are an illusion -- a trick of sun, heat and sand. When you see a mirage, you head toward it, moving faster and faster, until finally, you plunge headlong right into it! But all you get is a mouthful of sand.

Advertising is the false spirituality of materialism, promising what it can never deliver. Even the slogans of advertising sound religious, using the language of ultimate concern: "Buick, Something to Believe In," "Miller Beer, It Doesn't Get Any Better Than This," "GE, We Bring Good Things to Life." Is this not the essence of idolatry -- misdirected form of worship?

But these promises are an illusion, a mirage that is very dangerous. All of life has been reduced to consumption. We sacrifice our souls for the mirage of glittering images, and all we get is a mouthful of sand. We have run after mirages in the desert and now the desert is in us.
-- Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics (New York: New York Press, 1985), p. 168

***

If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?
-- Erich Fromm

***

Each of us comes into life with fists closed, set for aggressiveness and acquisition. But when we abandon life our hands are open; there is nothing on earth that we need, nothing the soul can take with it.
-- Fulton J. Sheen
UPCOMING WEEKS
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Proper 17 - OT 22 - Pentecost 12
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Hebrews 11:29--12:2

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Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth,’...” (v. 49a)

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